Radcliff, A.S. 2016. The Claim of Humanity in Christ: Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance. (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 222), Eugene, OR: Pickwick. 208 pp.
Torrance’s assertion of universal election as a fait accompli raises the issue of human freedom (per Radcliff). Does God’s sovereign decision to elect all humanity in Christ repudiate human autonomy?
No. Despite the post-Enlightenment insistence that we are all freely self-determining autonomous, individuals, we really are not as free as we may think (apart from Jesus, that is). Paul says we are “enslaved to sin” (Romans 6). Luther calls it the “bondage of the will” and Calvinists like to talk about how we are” dead in trespasses and sins” and can do nothing to save ourselves. “Dead men can’t even reach for the life ring,” as the Calvinists like to say.
However, the Torrance tradition insists that the human will is liberated. In the incarnation, Jesus assumed the fallen human will and bent it back to God, thereby setting humanity on a new footing. (As I think of it, we are no longer “in Adam,” we are “in Jesus.” By the way, “we” means everybody, even the brother-in-law you can’t stand!) In Jesus, our self-will is overridden, judged and forgiven, then “recreated and determined by love” (TFT).
Thus, the fait accompli of universal election does not undermine human freedom; rather, it recreates and establishes it, for now we are free to choose Jesus. TFT says, [Election] does not mean the repudiation of human freedom but its creation and the repudiation of bondage.” As Radcliff writes, “God does not undermine our human freedom but rather establishes it because we are liberated from our enslaved, sinful condition to participate in the very life of God” (p. 35).
Comment: As I understand all this, the human will is no longer fallen; it is recreated and made new in Jesus. All are set free from the bondage of the will to turn to Jesus. Neither does the five-point Calvinist notion of “total depravity” still obtain, because sinful, Adamic flesh is healed from its corruption and disease in the incarnation (hypostatic union). Thus, Luther’s “bondage of the will” is no longer the case, and the Calvinists’ TULIP is short another letter.
Faith entails a genuine human decision, per Torrance, but at its heart is the prior divine decision to choose us. In other words, we can only make a decision for Jesus because Jesus has already made a decision for us. As Radcliff notes, “The relationship between the divine decision already decided and the decision of the human being in response is constituted by the Holy Spirit.” Thus, the human decision of faith has no independent action apart from the prior divine decision of election.
Radcliff does not elaborate on the Spirit’s role at this point. That comes in Chapter Three, and I am really looking forward to getting there in this blog, because I have a lot of questions, despite all the reading I’ve been doing lately on the Holy Spirit.
Universal vs Limited Atonement
The Torrances’ theology of universal atonement, or universal reconciliation, is challenged by Federal theologians (conservative Calvinists) who hold a doctrine of limited (or, “definite”) atonement, where Christ dies for the elect only (with “elect” narrowly defined as the chosen few.) Radcliff quotes a few Calvinists who say that assurance is possible only with the doctrine of limited atonement, because the elect are certain that Christ’s sacrifice is efficacious for them. On the other hand, these same Calvinists assert that a doctrine of universal atonement cannot offer assurance (huh?), because redemption is only a potentiality, since some do not choose faith in Christ. Gibson & Gibson claim that proponents of universal atonement (the Torrances) cannot, if being consistent, offer a belief in the “sincere offer” of salvation for every person. All that can be offered is the opportunity or possibility of salvation. Since salvation is only a possibility and assurance of salvation is lost (according to the Calvinists), we are thrown back upon our own response as the subjective ground of salvation.
Comment: The conservative Calvinists argue that universal atonement offers only the “possibility” of salvation, for not all choose Christ. What they fail to mention is that the doctrine of limited atonement makes salvation an impossibility for the vast majority of humans who have ever lived!!! Go figure.
Radcliff does a good job of countering these claims of the conservative Calvinists, which, in my view, are more properly directed at Arminianism than the Torrance tradition. For the Torrance’s, as we have already seen, salvation for all is not a “possibility”; it is a fait accompli. Jesus fulfills both sides of the covenant on behalf of all humanity. Our response to what Christ has already done contributes nothing to our salvation (this is good Reformed theology, by the way). Salvation does not depend upon our response, because Christ, our Substitute and Representative, has already made the perfect human response in place of, and behalf of, all. Our human response is a matter of living in accordance with this reality but it does not accomplish the reality.
To be sure, the doctrine of limited atonement cannot and, historically, has not offered assurance, as anyone knows who has read James Torrance’s “Introduction” to John McLeod Campbell’s The Nature of the Atonement. In the doctrine of limited atonement, Christ dies for the elect. That’s all well and good. But how do we know we are among the elect? Only by the hard work of producing fruits of repentance, and if you are like me, that can be really “iffy” sometimes. As Radcliff notes, “Definite [limited] atonement leaves people worrying whether they are one of the chosen few for whom Christ died, whereas universal atonement offers assurance that all are included in Christ’s perfect response in our place” (p. 45).
The doctrine of limited atonement cannot offer assurance, because it throws our religious efforts back upon ourselves. Whereas the gospel is the end of religion, limited atonement builds its awful structure right back again. As TFT observes, “For generations of people in the Kirk faith was deeply disturbed and shaken by the doctrine thundered from the pulpits that Christ did not die for all but only for a few chosen ones—as assurance of their salvation withered in the face of the inscrutable decree of divine predestination.” Yikes! More Prozac please!
For more on universal vs limited atonement, see my previous post here .
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